N. Scott Momaday began with horses and ended with bears. He spoke of the sacredness of both.
At 84, the recipient of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards lifetime achievement prize was both merry and measured on the dais of the City Club of Cleveland. He began with a tale about a hunting horse “black and fast and afraid of nothing.”
Its owner was a coward, though, and when the man diverted the horse from battle, it died of shame. The elder who recounted this story to Momaday cried when he told it. The writer includes it in his book “The Way to Rainy Mountain.”
“I have a distant relative who on one occasion gave away 250 horses from his private herd,” he said. His people, the Kiowa, “were rich in horses.”
The centrality of the horse braids through Momaday’s own life. On his 12th birthday, his parents gave him one. “I got to live the way some of my ancestors did,” he said, “on horseback. It was a great, great growing up thing for me. I spent several years on the back of a horse and I still dream of Pecos, my horse.”
City Club Executive Director Dan Moulthrop asked the writer if he indeed believed he was a bear, as he mentioned at the awards ceremony. Momaday answered with a foundational Kiowa story of seven girls and a boy, the boy’s transformation into a bear and the girls into the stars of the Big Dipper.
“To take your question seriously, I do believe that I am a bear, that I have bear blood in me, that I have something of a bear’s mind and intuition, intelligence and imagination,” he said. “I believe that firmly.”
His poetry, he said, incorporates both English-language and Native oral traditions, a melding of spells, songs, incantations and chants with the poetic structures he studied at Stanford University.
Looking relaxed in a windbreaker and trim white goatee, Momaday told his listeners that “the Indians has a great capacity for survival and that’s a good thing.”
Readers may watch the entirety of his remarks here and join our mailing list to be among the first to hear the lineup for Cleveland Book Week 2019.